BLOG 9.11.19: SEARS-ROEBUCK CHURCHES IN AN AMAZON CULTURE
Everything is changing, and changing fast. The digital culture has been a culture transforming force, so that the nature of work and the workplace, the way we do education, … everything is changing irresistibly … except, maybe much of the church. Here in the city of Atlanta, where I live is a good metaphor for that change. It is the former southeastern distribution center for Sears-Roebuck when Sears was the merchandising giant in North American, what with its mail order service so vital for a society with so many small towns and rural communities. When Sears built its southeastern distribution center here, it was the largest building in the southeastern United States. You could but anything, even do-it-yourself houses, at Sears.
But after World War II, all that began to change radically. Shopping malls began to develop and Sears joined the parade to build retail stores in the malls. The mail-order dimension of the firm began to fade from the scene. Then, more recently, malls also proved not to be a key to successful businesses. Finally, Sears has virtually ceased to exist. But more than that, Amazon emerged into the retail scene. It is so convenient to be able to go on-line and buy almost anything. That was the death-knell to many businesses.
Still, there stands the humongous old Sears building. There were several tries about what to do with it. More recently it has become the focus of activity for the community of urban professionals in the neighborhood and city, with a couple of floors of boutiques, eateries, then offices and residences, and a rooftop exercise center. It is quite a lively scene, but most of the young adult generation don’t even remember Sears-Roebuck.
Feed in the emergence of a digital culture, then the post-Christian culture in which Sundays are no longer a day reserved for church activities, and in which the institutional church is a diminishing influence. Churches that adamantly cling to their glory days in the past and try to retrieve them, are battling a cultural ‘white-water’ for which there are no patterns and no way to succeed. Still, too many assume that to upgrade their traditional sanctuaries, or call a new pastor, or have some new activity or musical style will solve the problem. They want the church of the Sears-Roebuck era, but that is a vain hope.
Allow me to take a step back, and retrieve a dimension familiar to cultural anthropologists. People have always come together in some tribal formation, some ethnic, cultural, common interest, or survival. A tribe is a community of people with a common narrative and common rituals. The church was birthed out of the tribe of Israel. It was called out by Jesus Christ, and built upon his life and teachings as recorded by his apostles. That was its common narrative. He gave it two common rituals: baptism and the eucharist (some expressions of the tribe added more), and it was energized and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Its earlies creed, the Apostles’ Creed, states the reality of the tribe, which within a few centuries became global: “I believe in the holy catholic church, and the communion of the saints.”
This is to say that the church in all of its various expressions is a global tribe, and has integrity and life, not by its sanctuaries, or its professionals, but by its faithfulness to its common narrative and its common rituals—its common message and its common mission. The tribe is formed as the communal expression of God’s new creation. And, strange as it may sound, it might be its most faithful expression when it has no sanctuaries and no professional clergy, but a tribal community formed into the image of Christ as they minister to one another.
Sound strange? The tribe needs to become incarnate in the present changing world, not in the ‘Sears-Roebuck culture’ of the past. Stay tuned.